If you can spot the difference between an apartment and a condo or a townhouse and a subdivision, you’ve probably already noticed that Squamish has been changing fast. Development has become a kind of buzzword in the town—part of a general narrative encompassing a string of recognizable, but difficult to track, changes: industry is leaving, Vancouverites are moving in, housing costs are going up, and tourism and technology are the new gold standards. Some changes are, however, more easily quantifiable; apartment rental vacancy is officially recognized at zero per cent, housing prices have gone up 62 per cent in the last five years, and the logging industry has been relegated to its last piece of available rented land in Howe Sound.
The most visible changes are the housing developments. As reported last month, University Heights will soon extend all the way to Mamquam Road. Further north of Quest, on the eastern side of Highway 99, land has been cleared, construction begun, and real estate sold at Skyridge, a subdivision encompassing an area nearly the size of the current Garibaldi Highlands.
Larger projects have also recently begun their approval process. In January, the provincial government issued its first environmental assessment certificate to Garibaldi at Squamish, a proposed ski resort on Brohm Ridge. The Jim Pattison Group has also recently bought land near Government Road for a major hotel and potentially a Great Wolf Lodge waterpark.
In February, a long-term development project passed its first major hurdle. The Squamish municipality sold the formerly industrial Oceanfront Lands for $15 million to a development partnership called Newport Beach Developments Limited Partnership. The partnership is between the Squamish-based Bethel Lands Corporation, the same development company that built Quest, and Matthews Southwest, a major international real estate company headquartered in Texas. Along with a number of condos and housing developments, the partnership has agreed to build an oceanfront park, wind-sports area, sailing centre, public walkway and greenway, “lands-end monument,” and a community centre, all located at what is currently Nexen Beach.
In October, the Squamish Council approved another downtown project by Bethel Land Corporation. The project, called Sirocco, includes three six-story, mixed-use residential buildings, each containing 138 residences and 520 square feet of commercial space. Squamish will also see its first float home community built on the Mamquam blind channel, with 27 floating houses and four commercial units. The developer has agreed to $1,967,588 in community development money, with $585,108 going to affordable housing.
The entire development will be located behind Zephyr Cafe next to the new, bright orange condo, called the MirEAU building, which went up last year.
Prompted by the news that the Sirocco float home proposal had been approved, the Mark reached out to two Squamish residents involved in the project.
Jesse Horn, Quest alum and cofounder of Timberwolf Homes, is currently bidding to design and construct the Sirocco float home community. While Timberwolf specializes in constructing tiny homes, Horn is excited about the float home project. “I would love for that to be the new iconic postcard image of Squamish,” he said. “A funky little micro-village on the water with the Chief in the background”.
Horn thinks the current housing boom is decentralizing the town. “Squamish has been developing down the highway to these multiple little communities, which makes quite a disjointed space,” he said. He is excited about Sirocco because of the possibility for community building; it could be a first step in making Squamish’s downtown more of a hub. “Developing cohesively is what I look forward to the most—using development to highlight what makes Squamish such a special place, as opposed to just riding the boom and developing too fast.”
The Mark also spoke with Eric Andersen, a local historian, who placed Sirocco in the broader historical context of Squamish’s development back at a Council meeting in October. He explained that it was the Chamber of Commerce who, over 30 years ago, created the concept plan for the downtown waterfront. “The Sirocco development is part of the vision the Chamber had all those years ago,” he said.
Andersen said that after he spoke publicly about the history of the site, Sirocco developer Michael Hutchinson reached out to him and to other heritage advocates about building a historical installation on the site. “That’s a very nice gesture on the part of the developer,” Andersen said. “We don’t really have a heritage policy in Squamish, so when people step forward to help it out, that’s very welcome.”
Andersen added that after conversations between the developers and the Squamish Streamkeepers, a local group working to conserve salmon and herring populations, Sirocco adopted a building plan that incorporates herring spawning grounds.
Although the railroad and forestry companies had left the blind channel by the late 1990s, Andersen is wary of how future development might affect what industry remains. “If we’re going to have housing and commercial developments near industry, they need to understand that industry has nowhere else to go. They’re in their last potential locations in Squamish.”
While we may not see it downtown anymore, industry still plays a vital role in the region. “Industry serves the whole region, and today it’s largely under First Nations ownership,” Andersen said. “They’ve waited a long time to have an ownership position in the forest industry, and a bunch of condominium owners have to understand that you can’t just push [industry] aside.” While provincial zoning protects the land that the forest industry currently rents, Andersen warned that even these leases could one day be sold for residential use.
“Sometimes you just need to say to major developers, ‘You’re going to have to wait in line until we see economic development, transit, and infrastructure looked after’ […] It’s not good for anyone that Squamish can’t pay its way and we don’t have the jobs to support families here.”
Anderson said that for the past 30 years people have discussed whether or not Squamish will become a ‘bedroom community,’ and if so then to what extent. “Sometimes you just need to say to major developers, ‘You’re going to have to wait in line until we see economic development, transit, and infrastructure looked after’,” he said. “It’s not good for anyone if Squamish can’t pay its own way, if we don’t have jobs to support the families that live here.”
Fundamentally, Horn and Andersen agree that there is no single solution to the problem of community-oriented development. While Squamish has a vision of high-tech and tourism, it needs residences for the people who are here now and who depend on affordable housing—not only those who work in forestry, but also in the service industry and the arts.
Feel free to conract Eric Andersen with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org